Entertainingly complex, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin utilizes a whip-smart script and a dynamite cast to present dissolution of a friendship as a car crash you can’t look away from.
Set on the Irish island of Inisherin during the Irish Civil War in 1923, Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) lives a quiet life with his unmarried sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon). He spends most of his days in a pub alongside his best friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson). One day, Pádraic goes to meet Colm for a drink, but Colm abbruptly announces he no longer wants to be Pádraic’s friend. Pádraic begins to unravel and relies on the comfort of his sister and town dolt Dominic Kearney (Barry Keoghan).
Colm realizes he is advancing in age and longs to spend more time making music away from the dull Pádraic. Following continued protests, Colm announces he will cut off his fingers if Pádraic continues to persist in bugging him. As the rift between the two grows, actions become further escalated with consequences for the entire island.
While the idea of a broken friendship is at the forefront, the film largely focuses on insecurities. Once Pádraic finds out why Colm doesn’t want him around, he begins to spiral. His relationship with Colm was the bedrock of his stability. Once that relationship falls apart, it forces Pádraic to come to terms with the limitations of his own intelligence and self-worth. As he scrambles for validation elsewhere, it only affirms his deepest fears.
Colm explains to Pádraic that he doesn’t care about being nice anymore. While Pádraic feels his niceness is his bedrock personality trait. The film grapples with the idea of great art being created by non-nice people, while also believing nice people are not remembered. The film could be categorized as mean-spirited, but it’s more underlying than overt. This is certainly one of McDonagh’s kindest films.
This push-pull is epitomized in one of the film’s best scenes. Pádraic comes into the village on his wagon and sees Colm, but decides to ignore him, per his request. Pádraic is then beaten by a police officer. Wordlessly, Colm gently gathers Pádraic on his wagon and takes the reigns down the road as Pádraic breaks down emotionally. Eventually, they reach a fork in the road, Colm hands back the reigns, and leaves. Despite the breakdown of the friendship, humanity is able to win the day. At that point in the film, it seems like there could be a cordial ending. Events continue to escalate until the realization comes that things will not end well.
More than anything, there is a desire for understanding. Pádraic’s inability to grasp why this is all happening is not something he can just sit and accept. He has to pester and inquire. He can’t leave well-enough alone because the well-enough is driving him mad. No abstract reason is good enough for Pádraic. There has to be a concrete reason. Without that understanding, Pádraic lashes out in more ways than one.
Farrell commands the screen with grace instead of his usual bravado. Pádraic is a quiet, cheerfully limited man, and Farrell does a masterful job exuding his goodness as well as his deficiencies. No explanation will get through to Pádraic as much as he would like to understand. It’s difficult to portray a lack of intelligence, but Farrell not only does it well, it adds a layer of self-awareness that in turn adds a layer of sadness.
Gleeson lingers on the borderline of uncomfortably mean. Colm doesn’t want to hurt Pádraic, he just has reached a point in his life where being nice is not a priority. It’s a bold decision, but one he takes on with the necessary gravity. At the same time, his finger cutting threat doesn’t match the measured response of disassociating with Pádraic. All the while, Colm is still able to maintain a sense of decency and humanity, which Gleeson exudes in droves.
While Farrell is the dim-witted optimist and Gleeson is the dark-minded realist, Condon gets to straddle both lines. She immediately endears herself to the audience with her warmth, intelligence, and world-weariness. While each of the main men have their faults, Siobhán feels like the only person on the island with sense, intellect, and kindness. Condon plays this part to a tee and nearly walks away with the whole film.
Keoghan is memorably twitchy. While he begins the film as grating and a pest, revealing snippets of information grant him further sympathy. While his characterization takes a while to get onboard with, his performance will grow upon future viewings. Jon Kenny, David Pearce, and Sheila Flitton round out the rest of the wonderful supporting characters.
The Banshees of Inisherin proves that no matter how inaccessible, deft filmmakers and a cast of talented actors can rise above difficult subject matter. Though it lives in unease, the film is a fascinating picture of the complexity of human nature. You shouldn’t miss it.
The Banshees of Inisherin is now playing in select theaters